Om Sweet Om

As a school child, I often found myself embarrassed by the exoticized description of my faith.  With those days long behind me and being far more confident, as an adult, I often find myself forced to face descriptions in magazines and newspapers which would make the average American wonder, “What sort of weird religion is Hinduism?”

While school textbooks still leave much to be desired, instances of exoticization and eroticization by the media have become less frequent over the past decade.  I believe this is the result of the Hindu community and organizations, like the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), which have made concerted efforts to reach out and engage journalists and reporters.  But despite the efforts to improve the manner in which Hinduism is portrayed, there is clearly a long way to go.

On July 21, The Economist wrote a piece on Kashmir, the conflict-ridden region in India, and described the Amarnath cave, one of Hinduism’s most sacred shrines dedicated to Lord Shiva, as a “penis-shaped lump of ice.”  Countless online comments to the article clearly demonstrated the outrage and insult felt by Hindus across the board at the magazine’s crude and sensationalist description of that which is holy to one billion people worldwide.

Why would a such a well-respected magazine allow such a disparaging description to be published and then refuse to retract it?

In an effort to get an answer to this question, and also to request a retraction, the Hindu American Foundation reached out to the South Asia editor and suggested an alternate (and more respectful) description of “naturally formed ice stalagmite worshipped as a form of the Hindu God Shiva.”  To his credit, the editor did reply promptly to the inquiry.  Unfortunately, he pointed to his reference of wikipedia which defines the Shiva Lingam as “male creative energy or of the phallus.”  While there is no denying the existence of this definition, couldn’t he have continued reading to the next sentence which provides “[a] complementary theory [that] suggests that the Lingam represents the beginningless and endless Stambha pillar, symbolizing the infinite nature of Shiva?”

When given the choice between two theories, why was the former found more worthy of publication in such a well-established magazine?  And even after making the decision to use the phallic interpretation of the Lingam, why choose the needlessly provocative, crude, and anatomical description of “penis-shaped,” and that too with the qualification of “lump of ice?”

HAF made both of these arguments, among others, to The Economist, to no avail.  To that end, the Foundation launched a campaign on yesterday.  For every person who signs the petition, a pre-written letter is sent to The Economist with a request to replace the offensive description of Amarnath with respectful language.   As of the writing of this blog, almost 400 people have signed on.  Click here to see the campaign and sign on.

I sincerely hope that The Economist reconsiders its poor choice of words and replaces them with respectful terminology.  These types of descriptions, however small they may appear, are read by countless individuals, many of whom do not have much knowledge about Hinduism.  It presents a distorted image of a truly beautiful faith replete with thousands of years of philosophical thought.  For a magazine of such a high caliber, The Economist could do so much better.

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